Was 2021 A Breakthrough Year For Fusion Energy?


In a year where the news has been dominated by Covid vaccines and variants, billionaires blasting into space and climate change (the IPCC report, COP26, crazy weather…), those plugged into the science and energy news may have noticed an uptick in stories about fusion energy.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been managing a team working on collating fusion news stories for the Fusion Industry Association—released as fortnightly Fusion News videos and podcasts. We’ve seen a steady flow of news stories and an increasing number of general feature articles. 

And 2021 brought us some pretty big fusion stories, each bringing us closer to harnessing the power of the stars for clean energy generation here on Earth.   

Making a star on Earth

In order to get energy from fusion reactions, fusion fuel (in the form of a hot, electrically-charged gas called “plasma”) must be kept hot enough and dense enough for long enough that the fusion reactions become self-sustaining. The most established methods use magnetic fields to isolate the plasma from the walls so it can be heated to high temperatures, or lasers fired at a pellet of fuel smaller than a peppercorn that compress the fuel to high densities and temperatures.   

Key fusion news in 2021

In late May, the Chinese EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) fusion machine reached 120 million degrees Celsius (216 million degrees Fahrenheit) and held conditions stable for 101 seconds. 

Over 100 million degrees is the temperature required for fusion to occur, and 100 seconds is a fairly long time on plasma timescales. Most fusion experimental “shots” last for under a second or two.

Also in May, experiments on the “Super-X divertor” of the MAST-Upgrade tokamak showed at least a tenfold reduction in the heat on materials in the exhaust system of the tokamak. This design would allow components in future commercial tokamaks to last for much longer; greatly increasing the power plant’s availability, improving its economic viability and reducing the cost of fusion electricity.

In August there was big news from the National Ignition Facility that their laser fusion experiment released 1.3 mega joules (MJ) of energy, which was around 70% of the laser energy delivered to the fuel capsule. New results presented in November said they exceeded “ignition”—a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it receives and can thus burn on its own. 

Reaching ignition is an important milestone for fusion because fusion reactions need to be self-sustaining for a commercial fusion reactor. 

In September, Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced the successful test of the world’s strongest high-temperature superconducting (HTS) fusion magnet.

The large electromagnet was ramped to a field strength of 20 tesla—a world record for a fusion magnet. The magnet weighs 10 tons, is in a D-shape and is representative of the size needed for their tokamak demonstration plant, SPARC. Simulations suggest that the magnetic field of 20 T is enough to enable SPARC to achieve net energy from fusion.

In October, the U.K. government released its Fusion Strategy, alongside a green paper on proposals for a regulatory framework, saying that it intends for the U.K. to become the first country in the world to legislate the safe and effective rollout of fusion energy. 

Government commitments to fusion energy will be vital for smooth commercial deployment so this is an important step, particularly as the report highlights the importance of international collaboration.

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In November, private fusion company Helion announced the largest single fundraise in private-fusion history. They secured $500 million to deliver a fusion demonstrator, plus additional commitments of $1.7 billion going forward tied to specific milestones. 

Then in December, CFS announced that they had raised $1.8 billion in Series B funding to commercialise fusion energy. 

This was huge. In just October, “The Global Fusion Industry in 2021” report by the Fusion Industry Association and U.K. Atomic Energy Authority published data that showed that private fusion companies had attracted almost $1.8 billion in private investment combined to date. By the end of the year that number had more than doubled. 

Additional thoughts on the significance of some of these news pieces can be found on the Fusion Energy Insights blog.

Fusion leader opinions

In light of some of these big news stories, I asked some key players in the fusion industry whether they thought that 2021 was a breakthrough year for fusion energy and what they hope to see in 2022.

Jane Hotchkiss, President of Energy for the Common Good:

“2021 has become a watershed year for fusion energy, with $5 billion of investment in fusion device efforts and recognition of fusion energy as a climate change mitigation power source by the first ever inclusion of fusion in the official dialogue of COP26, to name only two in a long list of achievements.”

Professor Steven Cowley, Director of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory:

“The concept of a “breakthrough” is problematic for me (fusion requires more than an ah-hah moment). But it has been a year of good progress. 

“The NIF result is a huge scientific step forward. It shows the working of a scientific team solving their problems and using the results to improve the performance over a decade. This is the first really self-heated fusion experiment. 

“The computational discovery of volume quasi-symmetric stellarators in the last few years (by Elizabeth Paul, Matt Landreman, Sophia Henneberg…) is probably more significant than anything since these configurations will make excellent reactors. They’re also just an incredible idea.

“In 2022 I want to see us use our predictive computational power to start to design reactors that can really enter the market.”

Professor Ian Chapman, CEO of UK Atomic Energy Authority:

“I think 2021 was an awakening year for fusion. There were lots of major technical breakthroughs—like results on HTS magnets, the MAST-U divertor, ITER continuing at pace—coupled with both concerted national strategies to deliver fusion energy and a step up in investment in the sector.

“I hope we build on this awakening, and we see more investment and development of an industrial capability to deliver fusion. Right at the end of 2021 we completed deuterium-tritium operation on JET for the first time in a quarter of a century, so it will be fascinating to see the results from that in the next couple of months. These could be landmark results for the community.”

Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association:

“It was not (yet) a breakthrough year in fusion energy. While this year did indeed see some amazing growth and advances in fusion across many metrics, from business to media to science, I think it’s important to save that “breakthrough” headline for the moment where fusion moves from impossible to inevitable.

“What I would say, though, is that we can paraphrase Winston Churchill: 2021 was not the end, nor yet even the beginning of the end; it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning. It should be clear now that scientists have done enough to bring fusion from the lab to the marketplace. 

“What I expect in 2022 is a further transition from the lab to the marketplace. That means we’ll see more companies spin-off from universities and national labs and more successful fundraising rounds from existing companies.

“I hope that this coming year will also see the U.S. government fusion program begin to make that transition as well, where the Department of Energy moves from fusion science to supporting fusion commercialization and the regulators put out a roadmap towards how to ensure public safety of fusion.”

Scott Hsu, Program Director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA‑E):

“2021 was a significant year for fusion energy, with the achievement of many milestones that are visible and exciting not only to fusion researchers but to the general public (alongside the more typical, steady pace of advances in fusion research). The achievement of these milestones was accompanied by a major step change in the amount of private capital being invested into multiple fusion approaches and companies (more than $2.5 billion in 2021 alone).

“On the scientific/technical side, examples of major milestones include (one each by the public and private sectors): the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory demonstrated that it is possible to compress a small amount of fusion fuel to the cusp of “ignition”; and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) demonstrated that a tokamak-scale magnet could be built using high-temperature-superconducting (HTS) magnets and operated at 20 tesla, [which] opens up a new path toward higher-field, more-compact, lower-capital-cost approaches to tokamak-based magnetic confinement fusion.

“In 2022, I hope to see continued technical progress in the construction of new fusion experiments (both in the private sector and those being supported by ARPA-E), and continued progress in inertial confinement fusion toward scientific breakeven (i.e. fusion yield exceeding laser input energy).

“I also hope to see new initiatives that will enable the public and private sectors to work together more closely such that fusion energy can deliver timely solutions for overcoming energy and climate challenges of the nation and the world before mid-century.”

Taka Nagao, CEO of Kyoto Fusioneering:

“The year 2021 was a year of growth and change, despite the global pandemic. Some fusion startups have successfully raised funds equivalent to national budgets. Kyoto Fusioneering also will soon announce a funding round for its unique business model and new projects.

“At the international organization level, Japan continues to support ITER and this year achieved successful operations in the LIPAc accelerator [a prototype accelerator that will help experts from Japan and Europe to validate the design of a neutron source facility aimed at testing materials for fusion].

“At a national level, in Japan, two more fusion startups were founded to enter the global market and accelerate fusion commercialization.

“At the global private sector level, Kyoto Fusioneering has opened an office in the U.K., which signals the increase of demand for our know-how and testifies that the global market for fusion is growing.

“The year 2022 will be the year of a leap forward for Japanese fusion startups and technology, with partnerships with research institutions and fusion startups around the world. I expect this will lead to some new technological chemistry. We also expect that even more funding will be attracted to the fusion industry. This will be an important year for us to move our development plans into reality through fundraising.”

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